It’s a rare day when Tony Romo has something in common with Tim Tebow. Usually the two can’t be further apart, with one in his sixth season as a starter, and the other still waiting for his turn. One went undrafted and finally rose to prominence after being patient for three seasons, while the other was a surprise first-round pick. One recently married a former American beauty queen, and we still have to assume the other is a virgin.

But now there’s at least one minor slice of common ground. Tebow knows what it’s like to be the source of a heaping pile of criticism, most of which is justified, and some is over the top and unfair. Romo’s play so far through one quarter of this season has sparked a similar barrage of harsh words, and the latest borders on absurdity.

Many have taken their shots after Romo’s second half mess against Detroit last Sunday when he threw three interceptions. It started with Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, and then Deion Sanders chimed in, noting that although Romo is great statistically, he’s “not the guy to take you where you want to go.” And now the next dissenting voice is former ‘Skins quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Joe Theismann, who appeared on Dave Dameshek’s NFL.com podcast on Thursday.

While Cooley and Sanders questioned Romo’s ability to lead under pressure at the NFL level, Theismann went deeper.

“Tony Romo continues to do things to hurt his football team. He doesn’t understand how to play the quarterback position. Somebody had to say it, and I just said it. Tony, you have to start proving to everyone you understand football. You’re doing things that Pop Warner kids would get benched for.”

Similar words have often been said towards Tebow, but they’re more acceptable and believable since Tebow’s opportunities to play quarterback at the NFL level have been minimal. At this point Tebow is an athlete, and we don’t know if he’s an NFL quarterback.

We know Romo is an NFL quarterback, we just don’t know if he’s a championship-caliber NFL quarterback. That’s the difference, and it’s why the remarks from Cooley and Sanders may grab headlines, but they’re singing a very familiar refrain we hear nearly every season. Romo is and always has been a tremendously talented quarterback who’s prone to mental lapses at the worst possible time.

After his opening week disaster against the Jets I looked back on Romo’s recent history. Here’s how the dark tale read at the time:

Prior to his season-ending injury last year in Week 7 against the Giants, Romo faced five situations in which his team trailed by 10 points or less with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Throw in Sunday’s mess that ended with an interception, and his results in those situations aren’t outstanding or commanding. They reflect a lack of poise under pressure.

In those six opportunities, the only drive that led to points was a field goal in Week 2 against the Bears last year, points that were settled for when the Cowboys’ offense stalled while trailing by 10 with just over a minute remaining. The rest? A punt, a fumble, and an interception.

But despite his fragile nerves and tendency to throw the ball off of his back foot like Theismann’s Pop Warner pro, Romo’s career passer rating of 95.3 is still good enough for fifth on the all-time list, and he’s only one season removed from having 4,483 passing yards with 23 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

I’m no Romo apologist, and will never defend his lack of poise and moxie. But I also won’t follow Theismann’s lead and accuse a three-time Pro Bowler who has the Cowboys record for the most 300-yard games (28) of lacking in simple and basic football knowledge. By saying that Romo doesn’t understand how to play quarterback, Theismann is implying that an average quarterback would be better, either statistically, mentally, or both.

Well, we can rule out one area:

2011 stats Completion % Yds/game TD INT QB rating
Tony Romo 65.1 318.2 7 5 92.9
Average NFL quarterback 59.4 276.3 7.7 3.6 82

Romo is merely level with the average arm in terms of his touchdowns this year, a lack of production that can be partially attributed to the poor health of Dallas’ core receivers. His interceptions are higher than the norm, which can of course be blamed on his poor decisions and wayward throws, but perhaps he’d show more more poise if Dallas had a consistent running game that’s able to lift the offensive burden from resting solely on Romo’s shoulders (the Cowboys are ranked 25th with 86.8 yards per game).

He fully understands how to play the quarterback position, he just often doesn’t understand how to do it in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

Both Theismann and Sanders think Romo isn’t the right quarterback in Dallas. He’s under contract until the end of the 2013 season when he’ll be 33, and if we assume that Drew Brees’ extension gets done, next March the quarterback free agent crop will be highlighted by Vince Young, Alex Smith, Rex Grossman, and Jason Campbell. The Cowboys also won’t suck nearly enough for Luck, or even Matt Barkley or Landry Jones.

Looks like they’re stuck with a Pop Warner quarterback who’s still better than most of his NFL peers.

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